In the early nineteenth century, the largest Virginian banks were chartered by the state. In 1812, the founders of Farmers Bank of Virginia encouraged the state legislature to pass an act establishing their main office in Richmond and branches throughout Virginia. A bank branch like Farmers Bank of Petersburg functioned more independently than they do today. Branches circulated their own notes and stored the money standard within the building, rather than at the main office. This allowed the branch to fully serve its community. Branches also kept strict records of proceedings and debts under the state system, which required banks to be inspected by stockholders and provide annual statements for the legislature. For most of its history, this is how Farmers Bank of Petersburg operated. Banking in Virginia flourished into the 1850s, and Petersburg welcomed two new banks, the Exchange Bank and Bank of Virginia. Like many businesses in this time, the bankers and their families at Farmers Bank lived on the floors above the street-level commercial space. Additionally, the bank grounds included four brick outbuildings: a kitchen, smokehouse, a guard house, and stable and carriage house.2
The 1860s saw two major challenges to the old banking system: the National Bank Act of 1863, which established a federal bank and taxed state notes, and the end of the Civil War, which compelled economic recovery. Farmers Bank of Petersburg's investment in Confederate bonds caused it to go bankrupt. Virginia liquidated its state banks in 1866, and the Farmers Bank of Petersburg was sold and its business accounts settled. In June 1867, John P. Branch, a merchant turned banker, purchased the lot for his private firm, Thomas Branch and Sons. Private banks, or free banks, had existed as long as the state banks had, slipping through legal loopholes and becoming too pervasive to close without economic fallout. As a private bank, Thomas Branch and Sons accepted deposits, did not circulate its own notes, and worked primarily with young entrepreneurs. John Branch then sold the property to John O'Connor, who established a grocery and liquor store. Subsequently, the building was used as a private residence until given to the Fort Henry Branch of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, now known as Preservation Virginia, in the 1960s. After the Fort Henry Branch closed, the group transformed into The Friends of the Historic Farmers Bank, now the bank's primary stewards.3
Farmers Bank has remained standing as fires and urban renewal took much of Petersburg's early nineteenth century buildings. It is a beautiful example Federal architecture. The building has a boxy, symmetrical structure with windows across the facade. The fanlights above the doors easily identify the Federal style. Preservation Virginia restored Farmers Bank to its 1820s appearance. This meant undoing alterations, such as removing the storefront and rehabilitating the front brick wall. Without original blueprints or photographs, researchers used close examination of the building and Federal buildings of this period to determine its historic look. Inside, visitors can see the reconstructed strong room, a fireproof space with a trapdoor leading to the basement vault below. The original bank safe is also an impressive artifact on exhibit. Preservation Virginia made use of the grounds, reconstructing the kitchen and adding an herb garden.4
Historic Farmers Bank is a unique remnant of Petersburg's past and the history of banking in the United States. As a museum and visitors center, it now educates and guides visitors to discover the past around them.